ITOL Top 50 Films of the Decade, Entry No. 8: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Year: 2012

Runtime: 112m Minutes

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Writer: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver)

Stars: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer

By James Cain

The Sandy Hook massacre in 2012 saw 26 people murdered – 20 kids and six members of staff. It remains the largest school shooting at an American primary or secondary school, and is the second-largest school shooting in American history (the tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007 saw 32 people murdered). Coming out one year prior, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is a film that explores one of life’s more terrifying recurring nightmares.

Based on the 2003 novel of the same title by Lionel Shriver, “We Need To Talk About About Kevin” focuses on successful travel writer Eva (Tilda Swinton) and the relationship with her son, Kevin (Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell and finally Ezra Miller). Kevin seems to antagonise and loathe his mum from birth: crying only in her arms as a baby, being entirely uncooperative with her as a young kid when they’re alone, and taunting her frequently as a teen. Her loving-yet-oblivious husband Franklin (John C Reilly) is no help either; he loves the kid and thinks that Eva is being delusional. As tension builds, so does the dread, as we know from early on that Kevin launches a murderous attack on his school.

What She Said:

“Ramsay, filming in lurid reds and unblinking close-ups, lets no one off the hook here; this is truly a domestic horror story, with no easy answers and nobody blameless.”

Moira MacDonald, Seattle Times

In most hands, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” might be too dark and complex a film to be worthy of this websites Top 50 Female-Directed Films of the Decade series. However, here we’re in the hands of Lynne Ramsay, who with a script co-written by Rory Stewart Kinnear, delivers perhaps the most terrifyingly-plausible horror film of the past 10 years.

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John C. Reilly and Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) © 2011 – Oscilloscope Pictures

The film confidently establishes itself in the genre right away, with sprinklers cutting into a still suburban night while the camera creeps towards an open window to ask “What’s in the garden?” This scene of restrained foreboding then collides with Buñol’s La Tomatina festival, with an orgy of plant-based carnage soaking revellers under the hot Spanish sun. It’s here that we meet Eva, a woman free, happy and entirely red from the massive tomato fight. This contrast of scenes sums up “We Need To Talk About Kevin” nicely, with scenes of chilling quiet smashing into moments of alarm and horror.

What She Said:

“Lynne Ramsay’s thoughtful, unnerving film works its strange power over viewers who are likely to find themselves as compelled as repelled by its fatally flawed key players.”

Ann Hornaday, Washington Post

The source of all this horror is, of course, Kevin. Ramsay’s film explores the idea that a human being might just be evil, no matter their upbringing. Eva and Franklin are fine enough parents, with Eva even putting her job as a successful travel writer on hold and agreeing to embrace the suburban lifestyle (an environment in which she is instantly alien). But try as they might, Kevin is just a warped individual, a little bundle of cruelty and malevolence. As he gets older, the issue becomes exacerbated, with Kevin testing new boundaries and opportunities to inflict pain. Given the time-hopping structure of the narrative, you find out his great crime pretty early on, with the film both allowing you to both experience the aftermath (Eva trying to adapt to her new life as the mother of a monster) and wait in dread for the inevitable violence.

Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) © 2011 – Oscilloscope Pictures

Prolific sound designer and frequent Ramsay collaborator Paul Davies is a huge part of the film’s astonishing success. The narrative’s drifts back and forth in time are led by the meandering sound design, be it domestic mundanity haunted by the distant screams of doomed children, to Eva and Franklin making love as we witness the despicable person that their fucking produced. As a result, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” feels firmly rooted in the present, with Eva gradually repairing her home after a vandalism and slowly seeking small modicums of personal and professional progress. As she goes about her days, the audience follows her as she slips into a variety of memories and daydreams.

Tilda Swinton and Rock Duer in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)© 2011 – Oscilloscope Pictures

This movie went hugely underappreciated during awards season, with only really the BAFTAs shining a light on Ramsay’s enfant terrible (probably due to it being a predominantly British production). If not the brilliant Scot’s sterling direction (not to mention her and Kinnear’s script), you’d really think that Swinton and Miller’s acting would be appreciated more by voters. Swinton turns in arguably her best with thus far (though she was a perfect mix of hilarious and terrifying in “Trainwreck”…). Her Eva isn’t perfect by any means, but in Swinton’s hands especially she’s very easy to root for, be it as the determined mum or the husk of a person trying to make it to tomorrow. Miller, on the other hand, establishes themself as one of the better young actors around with the role of Kevin. As the eldest version of Kevin, Miller is all lazily-cruel stares and knowing smirks. He’s enjoying life as his dad’s loving son and mum’s torturer, and Miller uses their uniquely strange, gangly good looks to a creepily-effective degree.

Ezra Miller in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) © 2011 – Oscilloscope Pictures

Many parents, particularly women, are bound to appreciate Eva’s isolation from society, be it her husband dismissing her concerns, or a doctor offering little more than a shrug with Kevin. And no doubt many parents have, deep down, entertained the notion that their spawn might be pure evil sent to destroy their lives.

What She Said:

“A meaty, full-fat, marrow-rich, extra-pulp vision of the nightmare side of motherhood, given realism by a pair of all-too believable performances.”

Catherine Bray, Film4

As for the school shooting itself, we see very little. Kevin’s weapon of choice (tragically chosen by his doting dad) keeps “We Need To Talk About Kevin” out of the gun-control debate, and most of what we do witness is either preparation or aftermath. Instead, the Ramsay and Kinnear are more interested in what kind of person commits these atrocities, and whether or not their environment is the cause of all such monsters.

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” is far from an easy watch, but in Ramsay’s deft hands, it’s a film packed with humanity and one not without humour. The slow-march towards calamity is softened by the hope that Eva may have a life after all this, brought about by scenes where she makes an effort socially, or an encounter where she is approached with love by a person who could hate her without blame. It’s in these moments that Ramsay’s all-too-real horror movie envelopes you with raw emotion, and that’s perhaps the film’s greatest feat of all.

The Extra Bits:

Where to watch:

Amazon: Rent & Buy

BFI Player: Rent

Google Play: Rent & Buy

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